Oh, Community, Community, Community. What has happened to you this season?
Admittedly, I’ve been a bit determined to see Season 4 of Community as in a negative light. I don’t entirely trust my own reaction because I know I’m inclined not to look on the bright side. However, I’m pretty sure that last week’s episode, “Advanced Introduction to Finality,” was genuinely bad. It didn’t just rub me, personally, the wrong way; it broke some of the fundamental rules of good storytelling. Today’s Rant will be spent complaining about this. I need to get it out of my system somehow.
There will, of course, be spoilers. Read on at your own risk.
One thing I’ve noticed about all the 2013 episodes is that they appear to be going through the motions. It’s as if the writers like Community but don’t really understand what makes it tick. They’ve retained all the parts, but those parts aren’t fitting together to make a coherent whole. The writers know parody has become an integral part of Community; therefore, almost every episode has been a parody. They know fans like Abed and his “meta,” so Abed has been transformed into a socially dysfunctional manufacturer of meta who cannot cope in society at large for more than a few minutes at a time. The characters act like their old selves, but here’s the kicker: their old selves have evolved over the seasons. Season 4 has had Season 1 Britta confronting Season 2 Jeff in one episode and Season 3 Shirley and Pierce going up against Season 2 Abed and Season 1 Annie in another. Annie has apparently fallen back in love with Jeff for no discernible reason. Chang has become entirely pointless and has gone through a sudden and seemingly artificial arc that makes no narrative sense. Pierce does nothing but make racist comments and draw attention to the fact that he’s losing his memory (ha ha haaaaaaaa…isn’t dementia hilarious? I. Don’t. Think). Every episode ends with the group learning a lesson that draws them closer together and Jeff making a heartwarming speech about it.
But next to last Thursday’s episode, all this stuff seems positively Shakespearean. We start out with Jeff on the verge of early graduation but having second thoughts about returning to his old firm. Yeah, okay, but the Jeff we’re given here is nothing like the Jeff we’ve been seeing lately. He’s far too nice to everyone. He doesn’t use irony. He asks for a graduation party. As far as I can tell, he’s acting as he does simply to further the plot. His attempt to replicate the die throw in “Remedial Chaos Theory” is weakly explained.
Then everything goes mad. The end of the previous episode hinted at the pending return of the Darkest Timeline, but here’s the thing: in Season 3, the Darkest Timeline is handled in such a way that it doesn’t break the fictional world. It may or may not actually exist. For instance, in “Remedial Chaos Theory,” Abed catches the die in the “real” timeline…but it is never confirmed that the other timelines do or do not absolutely ever happen. The hints that they do may be a product of Abed’s imagination. Evil Abed is seen only once (in the tag of “Remedial Chaos Theory”) exclusive of Abed himself. Point of view is maintained, and the rules of the show’s world are not violated. They’re prodded, but they remain intact.
“Advanced Introduction to Finality” seems, at first, to violate the rules of the world. Various Darkest Timeline characters, primarily Evil Jeff and Evil Annie, begin turning up and messing with the prime timeline. They thus confirm the reality of the Darkest Timeline (yes, I know this will change, but bear with me for a moment), which was always ambiguous before, and smash point of view to smithereens. Jeff Prime has no idea that Evil Jeff has arrived. The Evil Study Group has scenes at which no one else is present. Someone viewing the episode for the first time has two choices at this point: 1) to believe that the rules of the show have suddenly and inexplicably changed or 2) to anticipate an “it was all a dream” ending. Both choices are narratively problematic. In “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the ending works because everything remains ambiguous. In “Finality,” however, there can be no ambiguity; the writers are going to have to make a choice. The point-of-view issue complicates matters. If the entire episode were from Jeff’s perspective, an “it was all a dream” ending would be weak but comprehensible. In “Finality” as we have it, whose dream would it be? It would need to involve someone in the study group imagining scenes in which he or she was not present and somehow being okay with that.
The episode goes with the “it was all a dream” ending. Specifically, it uses Abed as a sort of spirit guide who explains to Jeff that he’s making this entire plotline up. We soon learn that Jeff is imagining it all in the moments before he throws the die. If Jeff is fully conscious, why is he confused as to the reality of what is happening? Is it all meant as a metaphoric representation of what is going on in his head? We’ve seen Jeff daydream before, but we haven’t seen him invent a complex story inside his own head in the space of about two seconds while everyone is staring at him expectantly. This kind of ending is already very weak storytelling, but here, it makes no sense at all. It allows Jeff a chance for another heartwarming speech, though. Yippee.
I have a hard time understanding how experienced writers could choose to go this route. There are twelve-year-old children who know the “it was all a dream” plot is cliched. Worse, it takes away all character growth gained during a storyline…except, arguably, for the person having the dream. This episode could easily have been about five minutes long.
Community is a shell of its former self. Sure, it’s “only a TV show,” but it used to be a rather intelligent one. I guess I’ll go back to watching paint dry for a bit. I do find that fascinating.